Baker says mental game will help Gonzalez after long layoff

Left-hander Gio Gonzalez finally makes his first start of the season tonight for the Nationals against the Braves. It is his first start since March 27.

Getting ready for a start usually takes just five days. So when you have to wait this long, manager Dusty Baker said the mental side of pitching plays a crucial role in allowing the pitcher to focus on what he needs to do.

“He’s had some pretty good bullpen sessions,” Baker said. “I urged him to pitch with his mind. And Gio pays attention during the game. He’s one of the guys that is really paying attention during the game. He rarely leaves the dugout. You pitch with your mind. What would I do in this situation? Who would I pitch around? Just different things so when you get out there you don’t feel as if you’ve (ever) left.”

gonzalez-gio-red-pitching-away-sidebar.jpgDuring spring training, Gonzalez worked with Mark Campbell, the Nationals director of mental conditioning, on his focus on the hill and not letting a bad pitch or result here or there snowball into an overall negative outing.

Baker said Gonzalez has helped himself the last week by being attentive during the game, whether it was talking to his fellow pitchers in the bullpen or charting pitches for the starter one day prior to his start.

The chart pitching is something I see everyday when attending minor league games in the Nationals system. You don’t see it as often in the majors anymore, but new pitching coach Mike Maddux has asked his pitchers to get back in the habit.

Baker said whether you are a starter waiting for your turn, a bench player or even a player on the disabled list, focusing on the game at hand when you are not playing can pay dividends in the next game or down the road.

“That’s what your supposed to do,” Baker said. “You’re supposed to be in the game whether you’re pitching or not. That’s what I meant by pitching with your mind. So I’ve urged Ben Revere to do the same thing. I talked to Joe Morgan years ago when he was in Houston and he was hurt one of his first years that he sat behind home plate.

“By the time he came back, he had all the pitchers moves to first base and what they’re most likely to throw in certain situations. That’s what I meant by playing a game in your mind.”

So how can Gonzalez use the mental side to help his physical talents tonight and every start?

“You can sort of see when a guy gets out of sync, if he’s flying open or he’s striding too far, or when a hitter like Freddie Freeman, if he look like he’s going the other way, if he’s bent over more or if he’s more straight up to see if he’s looking for an inside fastball. If you pay attention, you’ll notice things. If you don’t pay attention or not into the game, then you wont notice a thing and you’re really wasting your time and wasting ours, too. That’s what I meant by there are different things that you can do.

But Gonzalez has been off longer than usual. There have been days off, but there also was a rainout that pushed his start back further. The original goal was to get Gonzalez back on a righty-lefty-righty schedule sandwiched between Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Baker said that’s where Gonzalez will have to not let the days off interfere with the focus he will need tonight to get outs.

“There’s no substitute for being out there pitching, but you have to fool yourself sometimes,” Baker said. “Whether it works or not, one thing for sure the other way is not going to work. If your are over there fooling around, it’s not going to work at all. You are not even giving yourself a chance.”

Baker remembers managing against Gonzalez while with the Reds. Similar to Scherzer fighting through back-to-back tough innings early Monday against the Braves, he wants Gonzalez to not let early troubles in-game dictate how the rest of his outing with play out.

“When he’s really good, he’s great,” Baker said. “But when he wasn’t very good, he hadn’t found a way to get through it to a degree. But that’s being a young pitcher. And that’s being a guy that relied on his stuff for success, so we’re just trying to at this point to get him over the hump to be more consistent.”

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